Should you stay up late worrying about space junk?

It’s up there. In fact pretty much every communications satellite ever launched is still up there. A few hundred miles above the “geostationary” band where communications satellites serve their useful days is a growing graveyard of old communications satellites that just don’t work anymore. They’ve exhausted their fuel, maybe a board has burned out, or maybe they just aren’t needed anymore. No matter what the reason, these once-important satellites are just space junk now, and sadly there isn’t a recycling center up at 22,000 miles to harvest their useful materials. So they just sit there, waiting and circling, until the day that we do something about them.

It is possible that one day the sheer density of all these old satellites will create a problem. Maybe they’ll start bumping into each other and shredding, perhaps moving into a lower orbit where they could be dangerous to working satellites. That’s figured into the plots of movies for a decade or so now, but it’s not something we need to worry about for a while. First of all these satellites are spaced out widely, and they have a band about 139,000 miles in circumference to play around in (thanks to my 8th grade math teacher, Mrs. Gibbs, for teaching me how to calculate circumference.) So they are unlikely to hit anything else until there are literally hundreds of thousands of them up there.

Right now it doesn’t make financial sense to collect these old satellites but there’s every reason to think that it could make sense in the future. I could very easily see missions that launch people up to that high orbit where they scoop up old satellites. Forget about recycling them, I imagine they’d end up in museums or universities where they can be studied and enjoyed. Perhaps a chunk of DIRECTV’s first TV satellite will eventually go on sale for $49.99 with free shipping on eBay. Who knows, stranger things have happened.

We are only now beginning to see a large number of artificial satellites that could potentially have enough mass to draw closer to the earth in each orbit. I am glad I don’t have to be in charge of the long term plans for AT&T’s latest satellites, each larger than a semi truck, but I’m sure someone has thought things through completely and there’s a plan for keeping them in the sky for hundreds of years to come. Smaller satellites, far less affected by earth’s gravity, will eventually come down too, but when they do they’ll likely turn into tiny meteorites as they melt down upon re-entry.

I guess what I’m trying to say here folks, is that you just don’t have to worry about space junk. Not in your lifetime and probably not ever. Those are all just movies, they’re not real.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.